Part One, Chapter 18
From the first, we know Van and Ada will become lovers, although they think it impossible. We smile at their limited hopes and we look forward keenly to the consummation that will come to them as such a surprise. One final chapter before the big moment occurs defers the consummation itself still longer yet makes us still more eager—but only by breaking all the usual rules.
Although we have already glimpsed Van and Ada much later in life looking back fondly on their first falling in love, the Van and Ada of 1884 have approached intimacy steadily but gingerly, through casual fleeting touch, lingering forced contact, accidental intimacies, sustained proximity, a spontaneous first kiss and then “a not particularly healthy fortnight of long messy embraces” (102-03) that generates a raging, irrepressible itch. But in I.18 the narrative suddenly switches for a whole chapter from the viewpoint of 1884 to four years later, to Van and Ada recalling with delight their first summer together, and then within those shared recollections, to Ada’s memories, even prior to Van, of her first naïve encounters with sex, a comic counterpart to Van’s first taste of love and sex in I.4, before his first arrival at Ardis.
I.18’s structure therefore is that of an inverted telescope or “an impeccably narrowing corridor” (110). We begin from a base and viewpoint at the end of July 1884, where the story has reached by I.17, and glance forward to the 1960s, to Van and Ada’s “dot-dot-dotage,” then glide back to 1888, which becomes the new viewpoint, from where Van and Ada at Ardis the Second look back at Ardis the First, to 1884, which becomes a first focus, then successively to a secondary focus in 1881 (Gigment) and then perhaps to 1879 (Drongo), before returning to 1884, to a June day (the Villa of cards) that closely prefigures the Night of the Burning Barn.
Not only does the story shift us to a viewpoint well after Van and Ada’s consummation and to a focus before the erotic tension between them began to rise, it does so in a spirit of erotic parody (elderly Gigment’s inept gratifications, Drongo’s awesome erection, Ada’s innocent misconstrual) and highlights the repeated disagreement between Van’s memories and Ada’s. Yet somehow the discords between their different recollections underwrite their shared memories, in all their romance and extravagance, and so paradoxically countersign their essential concord, and end by vividly recreating an early Ardis the First scene, withheld until now, that anticipates and prepares for the excitement of, and then ushers in, the Night of the Burning Barn.
109.01-110.33: Not only in ear-trumpet age . . . . the young lady?: Cf. the story “Admiralteyskaya igla” (“The Admiralty Spire,” 1933): “We transformed everything we saw into monuments to our still nonexistent past by trying to look at a garden path, at the moon, at the weeping willows, with the same eyes with which now—when fully conscious of irreparable losses—we might have looked at that old, waterlogged raft on the pond, at that moon above the black cow shed. I even suppose that—thanks to a vague inspiration, we were preparing in advance for certain things, training ourselves to remember, imagining a distant past and practising nostalgia, so that subsequently, when that past really existed for us, we would know how to cope with it, and not perish under its burden” (Stories 348); and SM 248: “Lidia T. . . . and I played a little oasal game of our own invention. . . . parodizing a biographic approach projected, as it were, into the future and thus transforming the very specious present into a kind of paralyzed past as perceived by a doddering memoirist” (see also SM 1999: 252-53).
109.01: ear-trumpet age: Cf.409.16-18: “Herdsmen, spared by thunderbolts on remote hillsides, used their huge ‘moaning horns’ as ear trumpets to catch the lilts of Ladore.”
109.01-02: their dot-dot-dotage: Their dotage trailing like an ellipsis into nothingness. . . . Ardeur 93: “leur ga-gâtisme” (pun on gaga and gâtisme, “incontinence, senile decay”). Cf. 237.11: “Marina, in the late Eighteen-Nineties, in her miserable dotage.”
109.02: their adolescence (summer, 1888): The first explicit mention of Ardis the Second by its year; at 44.28 and 82.07-08, however, Van looks forward to “four years later.”
109.06-10: She had kept . . . her diary . . . he had destroyed his . . . : Cf. 95.33-96.17, where both return from their separate walks to check that their diaries are not accessible to snooping (Blanche is in fact reading Van’s by the time he reaches his room). MOTIF: diary.
109.06-08: kept only a few—mainly botanical and entomological—pages of her diary, because on rereading it she had found its tone false and finical: Some entomological entries are rediscovered by Van and Ada in the course of writing their recollections, and are triumphantly recorded at 55.10-56.10, with comments by Van on the trickiness of Ada’s diaristic style at 56.11-13.
109.11-13: “And do you remember, a tï pomnish’, et te souviens-tu” (invariably with that implied codetta of ‘and,’ . . . ): Prefigures their theme song at 138.01-139.04, with its “do you still recall . . . Don’t you remember any more . . . te souvient-il encore . . . tï pomnish’ . . . you remember still,” adapted from Chateaubriand’s “Romance à Hélène.” See: 5.07n; 50.06 and n. for the “and . . . and” pattern as an indulged stylistic itch in Nabokov in general; 87.15n; 106.11-26n; 138.01-139.04n.
Nabokov especially associated Chateaubriand, a favorite writer from childhood, with the magic of memory; he considered renaming the French version of his autobiography Le Château que baignait la Dore (cf. 138.04-06: “That castle bathed by the Ladore? Ma soeur, te souvient-il encore Du château que baignait la Dore?”; see 5.07n.).
The phrase “tï pomnish’” was almost an incantation in Nabokov’s first book, Stikhi (Poems, 1916): p. 15: “Tï pomnish’ etot den’? Prirode, umiraya” (“Do you recall that day? To nature, dying”); p. 19, “Tsvetnïe stekla” (“Stained glass”) (“Tï pomnish’, mï zhdali Tumannosti dali? . . . Tï pomnish’, chto bïlo?” “Do you recall, we waited for The mists of distance? . . . Do you recall what was?”), p. 30: “Tï pomnish’, kak v parke, sred’ negi nochnoï” (“Do you recall—in the park, midst the languor of night”). MOTIF: and do you remember; remember; Romance à Hélène.
109.13: codetta: W2: “A short connecting link, as between the pairs of entries of the theme in the exposition of a fugue; a short coda.”
109.14: torn necklace: Cf. 189.32-33. MOTIF: necklace.
109.15-16: Calendar dates were debated: Cf. 114.07: “July 28? August 4?”
109.16: sequences sifted and shifted: Cf. 114.02-04: “did the Burning Ba come before the Cockloft or the Cockloft come first. Oh, first!”
109.18-20: If their recollections now and then did not tally, this was often owing to sexual differences rather than to individual temperament: Among many other research lines, the discipline of evolutionary psychology, not yet founded at the time Nabokov was writing, pays close attention to male-female differences in cognition, including spatial cognition (on average men orientate themselves better in a landscape, women remember better the locations of specific small items: see Irwin Silverman and Marion Eals, “Sex Differences in Spatial Abilities: Evolutionary Theory and Data,” in Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992]) and aspects of sexual choice (attraction, jealousy: see David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating [New York: Basic Books, 1994], and The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex [New York: Free Press, 2000]). Although psychologists have studied differences in male and female sex fantasies (summarized in Buss 1994, 81-83, and including Freud in his 1919 essay “A Child is Being Beaten”) they appear not to have studied whether or not there are sex differences in recall.
110.07: insatiable delectations: Cf. 106.28-107.30: “an insatiable and reckless itch . . . scratch scrumptiously . . . . drugged beatitude”; 334.07-08: “an insatiable itch.”
110.15-18: stressed philosophic and moral distinctions between the shattering force of self-abuse and the overwhelming softness of avowed and shared love: Cf. 100.25-33.
110.19-22: When we remember our former selves, there is always that little figure with its long shadow stopping like an uncertain belated visitor on a lighted threshold at the far end of an impeccably narrowing corridor: Cf. 416.12-13: “one hand on the opal doorknob at the end of an enormous room”; 569.02-05: “only one hospital corridor . . . along which he had ever been wheeled.”
110.22-23: a wonder-eyed waif with a bedraggled nosegay: This recalls Ada’s first glimpse of Van at Ardis, when she carried “an untidy bunch of wild flowers,” 37.13-14, a “pink-yellow-blue nosegay” (37.33).
110.24-25: an ambiguous flue pipe: W2: “flue pipe. Music. A pipe, esp. an organ pipe, whose tone is produced by the impinging of a current of air upon an edge, or lip, causing a wave motion on the air within; a labial pipe; --distinguished from reed pipe. Flue pipes are either open or closed (stopped at the distant end).” A satyr in Renaissance iconographic tradition is often accompanied by a panpipe (said by the Greeks to have been invented by Pan); Van’s flue pipe is “ambiguous,” presumably, in that its being single (rather than one of several conjoined, as in a panpipe) makes it potentially more phallic.
110.28-33: And did the young lady recall . . . not in contact with the young lady: Note the stylistic mimicry of awkwardness and constraint.
110.28: And did the young lady recall: Cf. 109.11-14. MOTIF: and do you remember; remember.
110.29-31: the very first time she guessed that her shy young "cousin" . . . was physically excited in her presence: MOTIF: first time.
110.30: her shy young “cousin” (their official relationship): The most direct hint so far, for those who failed to disentangle Van’s and Ada’s true relationship from the evidence of Part 1 Chapters 1-3, that they are more than cousins. MOTIF: family relationship.
111.02: Walter Daniel Veen: Dan’s full name is spelled out here for the only time in the novel, presumably because it appears thus on the bookplates or folio covers of his erotic prints collection.
111.03: Jap. & Ind. erot. prints: MOTIF: erotic art.
111.07-08: insects in copula: Cf. 400.17-18: “ a pair of the Pear Peacock [Moth] in copula.”
111.13: her first school: “fashionable Brown Hill College, founded by one of her [Aqua’s] less reputable ancestors” (21.33-34); “Brownhill” at 166.12 and 170.26, “Brown Hill” again at 394.13.
111.16-112.16: that elderly gentleman, an eminent painter . . . celebrated old rascal who drew his diminutive nudes invariably from behind—fig-picking, peach-buttocked nymphets straining upward . . . Paul J. Gigment . . . : Despite Van’s “I know exactly . . . whom you mean,” the painter whom Van rechristens “Nymphobottomus” (117.25) is a teasing invention.
A painter named “Paul G-g----,” active in the 1880s and with a keen interest in the female form, and especially the young female form, nevertheless cannot help evoking Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who in Tahiti in 1891 took the young Teha’amana as his model and, soon, mistress. Although there is an evocative tribute to Gauguin’s art (especially the painting Ea haere ia oe ) at 574.34-575.02 (“the beautiful native girl . . . would offer her mangoes to Master”) and 584.18 (“a local Gauguin girl”), Paul J. Gigment’s work as described here has little in common with the heavy-footed, bare-breasted and usually full-face and solidly seated or recumbent Tahitian women in Gauguin’s paintings. Only Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watches Over Her, 1892) centers on the buttocks of a girl (Teha’amana) prone on a bed, in a painting that evokes fear rather than the eroticism of, say, certain celebrated François Boucher paintings of women in similar poses. In view of the penis of the horse Drongo that Ada recalls immediately after Gigment, it may be relevant that in his paintings, prints, sculptures and ceramics Gauguin adopted the signature “PGO,” a play on the slang pego (“penis, prick”).
The painterly preoccupation with pubescent girls seen from behind calls to mind Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, 1908-2001), who was renowned for the highly ambiguous sexual charge in his paintings of adolescent girls, naked or clothed, not usually “from behind” but from angles and in poses that often accentuate crotch or buttocks. For that reasons Balthus was therefore associated with Nabokov as the author of Lolita, in, for instance, the review of Lolita in the New York Times Book Review (August 17, 1958), illustrated by Balthus’s Les Beaux Jours (Golden Days, 1944-49). Occasionally Balthus does portray girls from behind (Le Cerisier [The Cherry Tree, 1940: a young woman reaching up to pick cherries]; Jeune fille se chaussant (Girl Putting on Her Shoes, 1950: with a second girl at the window seen from behind in short skirt]; Jeune fille à la fenêtre [Girl at the Window, 1955]), sometimes with, sometimes without an erotic charge. In view of the “house of cards” scene two pages later, which evokes the various paintings of The House of Cards (directly alluded to in Bend Sinister, Ch. 3, p. 34) by Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779), it seems relevant that Balthus also frequently used cards as secondary subjects in his paintings, such as La Patience (Patience, 1943: adolescent girl in awkward side-on Balthusian pose), La Partie de cartes (The Game of Cards, 1944-45), La Patience, 1948, Les Joueurs de cartes (Cardplayers, 1952), La Tireuse de cartes (Carddealer, 1956) and later works. The awkwardness of Balthus’s adolescents aptly matches the awkwardness of Ada and Van in their early adolescent grasp of sex. See Jean Clair and Virginie Monnier, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonnée of the Complete Works (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).
111.18-20: drawing teacher, Miss Wintergreen . . . incomparably superior: Also entirely invented. Her name, that of various evergreen plants (in Great Britain, any species in the genus Pyrola; in North America, Gaultheria procumbens), seems to recollect Ada’s “translation” of a passage from King Lear, “Mais en hiver / Jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais / N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert” (“But in winter / Never, never, never, never, never, / Is green, is green, is green, is green, is green,” 92.06-09), perhaps merely because Mlle Larivière, at whose prompting Ada translates into French, is Ada’s governess as Miss Wintergreen is her drawing-teacher.
On the day of her death, sunbathing Lucette complains of always teetering “on the tender border between sunburn and suntan—or between lobster and Obst as writes Herb, my beloved painter” (478.05-07). A painter’s “lobster and Obst” suggests still-life painting, which in its mid-seventeenth-century heyday often combined meat and fish, lobsters and fruit (German, Obst); Herb’s “lobster”-“Obst” seems to hint at Herbst, the German for “autumn, fall.” The combination of still life painting (natures mortes, lobster and Obst) and an artist’s name evoking one of the cooler seasons (Wintergreen, Herb[st]), seems more than accidental.
111.19: natures mortes: Still lifes. There is a kind of buried pun, in Miss Wintergreen’s natures mortes, on a plant’s being green in winter and “still alive.”
111.19-20: considered (in 1888 and again in 1958): When Van and Ada first reflect back on these scenes as belonging to their shared past, at Ardis the Second, “in their adolescence (summer, 1888),” 109.02; and again “in ear-trumpet age” (109.01), when recalling these scenes in order to compose Ada, which Van begins writing in 1957 (578.12, 24).
111.21-24: rascal who drew his diminutive nudes invariably from behind . . . peach-buttocked nymphets straining upwards, or else rock-climbing girl scouts in bursting shorts: MOTIF: behind.
111.22: peach-buttocked: Peaches will be strongly associated with Lucette, especially in Ardis the Second: see 192.11, 198.11, 205.08, 280.05-06 and afternote below.
111.22: nymphets: Nabokov took the word from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and French poetry for Humbert Humbert to apply to the special girl-children he lusted after: “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets.’ ” (Lolita I,5, p. 18) This sense has since become famous, glossed in OED as “A nymph-like or sexually attractive young girl,” with the Lolita passage above as the foundational example.
Cf. 117.25, where Van refers to Gigment as “Nymphobottomus.” MOTIF: nymphet.
111.23-24: rock-climbing girl scouts in bursting shorts: In the paragraph following his introduction of the term “nymphet,” Humbert explains “A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them” (Lolita 19). At the picnic for Ada’s sixteenth birthday, Lucette in shorts climbs rocks to spy on her sister and “cousin”: “Among the rugged rocks they found and consoled poor little Lucette, whose foot had slipped on a granite slab in a tangle of bushes” (267.18-20); on the journey back from the picnic, she sits down in her “remarkably wellfilled green shorts” (280.01) on Van’s lap. In another scene, Ada says: “Pet (addressing Lucette), be a good scout” (226 .15).
111.30: Pig Pigment: Combines the “P. J.G.” of Gigment’s initials (j and i have often been orthographically interchangeable); Ada’s contempt (“pig”) for his furtive fumbles; his surname; and his medium.
111.31-34: trudge and snort and pant upstairs, ever nearer like the Marmoreal Guest, that immemorial ghost, seeking her, crying for her in a thin, querulous voice not in keeping with marble: Allusion to the Don Juan legend, in the version of the opera Don Giovanni (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1787), as reworked by Pushkin in his one-act verse tragedy Kamennïy gost’ (The Stone Guest, 1830). In both versions Don Giovanni/Don Juan jokingly has Leporello invite the marble statue of the dead Commendatore (in Mozart’s case, Donna Anna’s father; in Pushkin’s case, her husband) to dinner. The stone guest stomps in to the dinner and, shaking Don Juan by the hand, chills the life from him.
Nabokov’s “Marmoreal Guest . . . immemorial ghost” puns, as Proffer 258 notes, on the Russian gost’, “guest.” In neither version does the stone guest call for Donna Anna, and in the opera his part is of course assigned to a bass voice.
112.02-03: puisqu’on aborde ce thème-là: Darkbloom: “since we broach this subject.”
112.04-15: to insist . . . that he help her reach for something . . . her poor little bottom made it at last to . . . his shirt front: MOTIF: behind.
112.11-12: this went on and on until the dinner gong boomed or Nurse entered with a glass of fruit juice and what a relief it was, for everybody concerned, when in the course of that fraudulent ascension her poor little bottom made it at last to the crackling snow of his shirtfront: In part an echo of the attentions Nabokov’s homosexual uncle, Vasiliy Rukavishnikov (the “Uncle Ruka” of Speak, Memory) paid to him as a boy: “When I was eight or nine, he would invariably take me upon his knee after lunch and (while two young footmen were clearing the table in the empty dining room) fondle me, with crooning sounds and fancy endearments, and I felt embarrassed for my uncle by the presence of the servants and relieved when my father called him from the veranda, ‘Basile, on vous attend.’” (SM 68)
112.16: And she remembered: MOTIF: remember.
112.20; And she remembered blushing painfully: MOTIF: remember; Ada's blushes.
112.18-19: artificially recolored in the lamplight of later events as revealed still later: Van presumably has in mind the scenes in which Ada recolors orchids as he stands pressing close behind her before taking her image away “as safe and bright as a hand-cupped flame” (100.17-18) to get rid of by masturbation, as revealed to her some time still later (probably in Ardis the Second’s retrospective evocations of Ardis the First).
112.21: poor Pig had a very sick mind: Cf. 112.32: “Drongo was a very sick horse”; 113.01-02: “suspected I was also a sick pig or horse.”
112.24: Drongo, a black horse: Cf. Greg Erminin’s black pony, 89.16-19 and 92.25-27 and Van’s “Morio, his favorite black horse” (159.09).A play on dong, slang for “penis” (Partridge, Dictionary of Slang, 8th ed.): “Brit. and Can.: since mid-20C. Slightly less vulgar than prick.” Aleksey Sklyarenko suggests an anagram of “Gordon” and therefore a reference to the notorious womanizer, George Gordon, Lord Byron (The Nabokovian, https://thenabokovian.org/node/35405, July 21, 2018).
112.27: She thought, arch Ada said: MOTIF: Ada--arch.
112.30-31: had not got a pouch as the kangaroo had in an illustration she worshipped: Cf. SM 138: “quite special arctic butterflies, whose pictures, or, still better, nonillustrated descriptions I had worshiped for several seasons.”
113.01-02: the first time you might have suspected that I was also a sick pig or horse: MOTIF: first time.
113.02: I am recalling: Continuing the Chateaubriandesque “And do you remember, a tï pomnish’, et te souviens-tu” at 109.11-12, this anticipates the “My sister, do you still recall” at 138.01, 138.07 and 141.28. MOTIF: remember.
113.04-29: you were building a house of cards. . . . your castle. . . . not a castle. It was a Pompeian Villa . . . to build again: Cf. 184.32: “It was Ada’s castle of cards.” MOTIF: games.
113.08-09: which now is murdered by some popular perfume: In 1888.
113.10: arrival at: corrected by VN in N1 from 1969, “arrival to.”
113.11-12: I remember . . . and . . . and . . . and: MOTIF: remember.
113.13-14: only in French love stories les messieurs hument young ladies: MOTIF: novel.
113.14: hument: Darkbloom: “inhale.”
113.16: Fingertips stalking gravity: MOTIF: gravity.
113.17: Badly bitten nails, my sweet: MOTIF: fingernails.
113.19-22: when your castle toppled . . . . a Pompeian Villa with mosaics and paintings inside, because I used only court cards: Cf. the Villa Venuses, whose membership “was to be restricted to noblemen” (348.13) and whose premises start out memorably decorated, to evoke, for instance, ancient frescoes, in Van’s first floramor (the Egyptian scene of 353.17-31) but end with haunting decay, in the image of a “ruinous Villa” in Van’s “last Villa Venus” (356-58). MOTIF: castle of cards.
113.19-20: a Russian splash gesture of surrender: Cf. story “Usta k ustam” (“Lips to Lips,” 1932): “ ‘But how, how can it be!’ cried Ilya Borisovich, with a Russian splash-gesture of helpless dismay” (Stories 315); Pnin 41: “vsplesnut’ . . . the two-handed dramatic splash of amazed distress.”
113.20-25: “ . . . and sit down on my hand.” “ . . . Did I sit down on your hot hard hand?” “On my open palm, darling”: Cf. 117.21-22: “she sat down on his hand and her heels, as the burning castle of cards collapsed.”
113.21-22: Pompeian Villa with mosaics and paintings inside: Cf. 8.31-9.08and n.: “the Stabian flower-girl’s . . . . whom I admired last summer in a Naples museum.”MOTIF: Pompeianella; Villa.
113.25: A pucker of paradise: MOTIF: paradise.
113.28: Quick, quick, quick: MOTIF: quick-quick.
113.31-33: “You do recollect—” “Not that . . . but . . . and . . . , et tout le reste”: MOTIF: remember.
113.32: apple tree: I.15, 94-96. MOTIF: apple; Shattal.
113.32-33: and when you kissed my neck: Cf. 100.07-11.
113.33: et tout le reste: Darkbloom: “[and] all the rest.”
113.33-34: zdravstvuyte: apofeoz: Corrected by VN in N1 from 1969, “apofeos.” Darkbloom: “Russ., lo and behold: the apotheosis.” Cf. 406.30-31: “And here’s the last one: Kim’s apotheosis of Ardis.”
113.34: the Night of the Burning Barn: MOTIF: burn; Burning Barn.
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 18